Is ‘bad’ Peter Saunders a Neoconservative?

Peter Saunders likes to call himself a classical liberal. Leftist commentators prefer to call him a neoconservative. But what is neoconservatism and how does it differ from ordinary versions of conservatism? And what has he done to earn the label?

Andrew Norton says that "nothing in the contemporary Australian scene" qualifies as neoconservatism. Jason Soon isn’t so sure. Jason thinks that Peter Saunders can be described as neoconservative because many of his views are similar to Irving Kristol‘s — the most neoconservative of all neoconservatives. Both Andrew and Jason have worked with Saunders at the Centre for Independent Studies and Andrew currently edits the CIS’s journal Policy. Both ought to know what they’re talking about.

There’s a sense in which Jason is right. Saunders views on welfare and social policy can justifiably be described as neoconservative because they are strikingly similar to the views of thinkers like Irving Kristol. Saunders’ views are conservative but not traditionally conservative. And because they can’t be described as classically liberal it’s difficult to think of a label which fits better than neoconservative.

But if you think the defining features of neoconservatism are membership of a loose network of New York intellectuals, a radical and hawkish approach to US foreign policy, and an allegiance to the esoteric doctrines of Leo Strauss, then Saunders is obviously not a neoconservative. As Andrew would say, nobody in Australia falls into that category.

Who is Peter Saunders?

There are two Peter Saunders who write about welfare, poverty and social policy. One of them works at the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) while the other works for the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). The SPRC’s Peter Saunders was trained as an economist and argues that Australian governments should do more to reduce poverty and inequality while the CIS’s Peter Saunders was trained as a sociologist and argues that Australian governments should do less to reduce poverty and inequality.

To make sure nobody gets confused, Paddy McGuinness has given them separate labels:

Professor Peter Saunders the Good [SPRC] … has to be carefully distinguished from his dark-side counterpart in the Centre of Independent Studies, Professor Peter Saunders the Bad, lest the enlightened fall into error.

Like his namesake, ‘bad’ Peter Saunders has authored a number of books. The first was a rather dry text on urban sociology that argued that countries like Britain were moving from a socialized mode of consumption to a privatized mode of consumption (pdf). Another was a much more accessible text titled ‘Capitalism: A Social Audit‘.

What is neoconservatism?

Not even NRO’s Jonah Goldberg can define neoconservatism concisely. "Ultimately" he says, "there’s literally no defining attribute one can ascribe to neoconservatism which cannot be easily and substantially falsified with numerous counterexamples." It took Jonah three long articles to give readers enough background to use the term competently (you can find them here, here, and here).

As Andrew Norton says , many Australian commentators haven’t managed to pass the competency test. Wilson da Silva, for example, managed to confuse neoconservatism with classical liberalism by announcing that Friedrich Hayek was the ‘godfather’ of the neoconservative movement. Even left leaning bloggers like John Quiggin had to agree that Andrew had a point.

But amongst all the confusion and controversy there’s one thing everyone agrees on. Anyone who knows anything about American conservatism agrees that Irving Kristol is a neoconservative. And long before neoconservatism became identified with the hawkish foreign policies of the current Bush administration, it was a label for a group of intellectuals who clustered around a magazine called the Public Interest. Founded by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell, the magazine took a sceptical view of efforts at planned social change.

Worried that this scepticism would stall the development of an American welfare state, socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington dubbed these intellectuals ‘neoconservatives’. For "all the decency and intelligence of its proponents," he said, the neoconservatives were "unwittingly doing the work of the reactionaries who will have unchallenged dominance over the collectivism of the 21st century…" (Dissent Fall 1973 p 454).

One of the major themes in Kristol’s work was the idea that people needed a moral framework that gave their lives meaning and that justified the distribution of rewards within society:

My reading of history is that, in the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.

Kristol was appalled by classical liberal thinkers like Hayek who freely admitted that free markets didn’t reward people with what they deserved. He wasn’t appalled because he thought that Hayek was wrong. He was appalled because Hayek was undermining the public’s faith in the idea that talent and hard work (along with a bit of luck) would lead to success.

For Kristol capitalism rested on fragile cultural foundations. Unless citizens maintained their attachment to bourgeois values like honesty, sobriety, diligence and thrift, the free market society would collapse. "For well over a hundred and fifty years now," said Kristol "social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable."

Kristol believed that intellectuals had a responsibility to tread carefully when they spoke in public. It may well be the case that wealth and privilege have become hereditary in America — after all, parents endow their children with much more than their genes — but it was irresponsible to draw attention to this. It’s far better to say, as Kristol always did, that talent is distributed according to a bell shaped curve and so is income. If you’re poor it’s not because you’re being oppressed or discriminated against, it’s because you’re just not hard working or smart enough. Put your nose to the grindstone and maybe your luck will change (or maybe it won’t).

What’s ‘neo’ about neoconservatism?

Up until the late 1960s, the dominant tendency in American conservatism was ‘fusionism‘ — an alliance between free market libertarians and traditional conservatives. Anti-communism was the glue that held the alliance together. The movement’s key thinkers clustered around a magazine called the National Review and attached themselves firmly to the Republican Party. The early neoconservatives were different. Emerging from the milieu of the New York intellectuals, neoconservatives like Kristol and Bell were more interested in culture than in economics or sociology. Kristol thought that National Review was too right wing and lacking in intellectual muscle. He had no sympathy at all for Republicans like Barry Goldwater.

The cultural upheavals of the late 60s made Kristol’s ideas more relevant and with help from philanthropies like the John M Olin Foundation he was able to help set up a network of magazines which included the New Criterion and the National Interest. Eventually he moved from moved from New York University (where he was John M Olin Professor) to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Bill Baroody Sr — the think tank’s head — sought him out after reading the Public Interest. As Kristol remembers, Baroody:

…calmly ignored the fact that not a single one of us was at that time a Republican, a fact that caused much outrage among Goldwater conservatives who were the main financial support for the AEI (p 33).

The early neoconservatives emerged from very different intellectual networks and traditions to America’s more established conservatives. Kristol may have ended up supporting many of the policies of the Reagan administration, but his motivations for this were quite different to those of establishment conservatives.

Is Peter Saunders a neoconservative?

Strictly speaking Saunders could never be a neoconservative. He’s English not American and has no deep links with the institutions which have fostered neoconservative thought. But in another sense, the label fits. Saunders’ views on culture and politics are surprisingly similar to Irving Kristol’s.

Like Kristol, Saunders started out supporting a left of centre party — the British Labour Party. Saunders believed that Britain needed to move away from what he called a ‘socialized mode of consumption’ to a more ‘privatized mode of consumption.’ By this he meant that while governments needed to make sure citizens were able to obtain health care, transport and housing it no longer made sense for these things to be provided by government. So when the Labour Party tried to stop working class people from buying their government owned houses, he realised that he no longer belonged.

While Kristol’s inspiration came from thinkers like Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling, Saunders has been more influenced by the sociologist Emile Durkheim. But despite the difference in their backgrounds, both take the same position on Hayek and distributive justice. According to Saunders:

Hayek goes on to say that in a system of free market capitalism, sometimes very deserving people will fail and scoundrels can succeed. Awful people, morally reprehensible people can get lucky, and those who are more deserving will get nowhere. Hayek says that that is the price you pay for a free society.

While he is to be admired for his honesty, Hayek was an economist and a legal philosopher, not a sociologist. A sociologist would heartily disagree with Hayek’s conclusions. As Durkheim said 100 years ago, in order for any society to work and function with stability, it has to have a clear sense of how it justifies its arrangements to those who live in it. Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society. It does matter why people end up where they do and with the resources they end up with. The reasons are important, and the questions must be answered.

Again, Saunders doesn’t say that Hayek is wrong about how capitalism actually works. Like Kristol his objection is that Hayek doesn’t conceal the truth.

In the final chapter of Capitalism: A Social Audit, Saunders echoed the ideas of thinkers like Daniel Bell:

In the postmodern era, we have no confidence in the correctness of our own moral judgments and we therefore shy away from judging others. Even government has become morally relativistic, decoupling welfare provision from any duty on the part of the recipients to behave in a certain way or to assume any responsibility for their own condition. The language of moral duty has fallen into disuse. Today, there are only different lifestyle choices, each equally valid, and ethics has become a matter of individual taste (p 118).

This is Saunders’ objection to free market libertarianism. Like Kristol he argues that capitalism depends on shared values — values like self reliance and mutual obligation. He also argues that government has a role in maintaining these values:

Because a society’s laws and formal rules are its most visible and symbolically significant statement of its collective morality, legal and administrative changes shift the public perception of what is ‘acceptable’ or even ‘normal’ behaviour. By shifting the laws in response to social changes, governments therefore underpin and reinforce the existing direction of change.

The conviction that the state ought to embody a particular moral tradition is a conservative idea rather than a liberal one. But the claim that it should do this for self-consciously pragmatic reasons is what sets Kristol’s neoconservatism apart from orthodox conservatism which grounds morality in religious faith or cultural loyalty. And to the extent that Saunders shares this approach, he too might be described as a neoconservative. After all, what better label is there?

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41 Responses to Is ‘bad’ Peter Saunders a Neoconservative?

  1. Jason Soon says:

    Good post as usual, Don. But have you considered a career as Peter Saunders’ agent?

  2. cam says:

    Good article, but other than the interventionist foreign policy, how influential and mainstream were neo-conservatives anyway? I suspect neo-conservatism is a policy non-entity other than their foreign policy.

    In that respect I was surprised how quickly Australia acted on the Solomons after the “Our Failing Neighbour” report was released by the ASPI. That smacked of policy fashion made possible by the neo-conservative foreign policy being in vogue with the Bush Administration.

    In the Australian context neo-conservatism can probably be limited to foreign policy stances. Probably even in the American context as well despite neo-conservatism having wider policies. When neo-conservatism is used in the US it is used to describe foreign policy, not social policy.

  3. Jc says:

    If you trace the roots of neo-conservatives- disaffected NYC Westside Liberals you can see US government policy under this administration practically swimming in neo-conservatism. I clicked there was an association the minute I heard Bush utter the words “compassionate conservatism”. Don’t know if Bush thought of that himself, although I have doubts, but his domestic policy agenda is essentially a neo-conservative one.

    Howard’s Australia is also a neo-conservative policy agenda although they don’t realize it. The footprint of government is everywhere you look. Tax policy and the way they distribute money around has is a good example of that. Maintaining a strong defense is also the neo-conservative paw print.

    It’s a soft touch/quasi big government type of ideology. For the purists it is a real disappointment. They let us have some of our money back, but boy they certainly tell us how we’re going to spend it and who gets it. If I were unmarried and single, I would certainly feel discriminated against by this government.

    Neo-conservatives can be used to label anyone with those ideas. They just don’t quite trust the market or individuals to place their own bets in life.

  4. Jc says:

    Good post by the way, Don.

  5. Jc says:

    This is probably the give away that his is a neo conservative:

    Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society. It does matter why people end up where they do and with the resources they end up with. The reasons are important, and the questions must be answered.

    Of course Hayek is saying that there are Ken Lays around which is too bad because it would impossible to stop this type rising up to the top. Saunders is giving the typical half arsed response that shows that the Westside Liberal roots are never too far away- having it both ways.

  6. Corin says:

    Neo-conservative in my view is a foreign policy outlook. Indeed it is almost strictly about ‘American exceptionalism’ and the values of using American power in the manner say Robert Kagan or Kristol would propose. Indeed in many way Blair is a reluctant but ‘values driven’ Neo-con of the kind that saw the movements inception. Indeed the tenets of power use to promote democracy is arguably a radical Left-wing agenda as well ….

    Welfare to work policies can also be read into law by either side of politics. Arguably Clinton has been the most pro-work of any American President. Is Clinton a Neo-Con or even John McCain (who also support welfare to work policies) – NO! Therefore it must be a foreign policy outlook which defines that character.

  7. Jason Soon says:

    I think Corin and Cam are missing the point. Since when did the most faddish use of a term become the right one?

    The original neoconservatives were not associated with a preoccupation with foreign policy. They were anti-communist liberals ‘mugged by reality’.

    BTW Corin I think you are confusing William Kristol with Irving Kristol. I think aside from being anti-communist Papa Kristol cared very little about foreign policy.

  8. Jason Soon says:

    Alright, correcting myself – perhaps saying that Papa Kristol ‘cared little about foreign policy’ is a bit of an exaggeration. But it was certainly not his preoccupation in the way it is Wolfowitz.

    Given that Papa Kristol (not to be confused with his son William Kristol of the Weekly Standard) originally coined the term ‘neoconservative’ I would think the way he uses the term deserves some consideration

    Irving Kristol (born January 22, 1920, New York City) is considered the founder of American neoconservatism. He is married to conservative author and emeritus professor Gertrude Himmelfarb, and is the father of William Kristol. He describes himself as a “liberal mugged by reality”.

    Books written by Papa Kristol

    Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea 1995 (ISBN 0-02-874021-1)
    Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead 1983 (ISBN 0-465-06872-3)
    Two Cheers for Capitalism 1978 (ISBN 0-465-08803-1)

  9. Jason Soon says:

    BTW here is an interesting quote from Papa Kristol:

    “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he says in an interview. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work

  10. cam says:

    Jason, “I think Corin and Cam are missing the point. Since when did the most faddish use of a term become the right one?”

    For the same reason that liberals in Australia have to call themselves ‘classical liberals” to avoid the popular connotations of liberalism due to the Liberal Party branding themselves with that word, not to mention the current connotation of liberal as a big-state slur in the US.

    This is a good article because it adds to the understanding of neo-conservatism, but from the Australian and popular meaning, neo-conservativism denotes an interventionist foreign policy. When I see Peter Saunders being spoken of as a ‘neo-conservative’ I think of him as being a conservative with an interventionist belief system in foreign policy.

  11. Corin says:

    Jason – Ok I don’t know my Kristol from my glassware. Point taken on your view.

    I would argue that Blair is more of a true neo-con on foreign policy than Bush.

    Don’t have time to actually argue it though.

  12. James Farrell says:

    Another interesting post, Don, and easier to follow than yesterday’s.

    However, I’m still not sure I understand the difference between conservatives and neoconservatives. Is there a fundamental incompaitbility, or is more a question of intellectual roots and emphasis?

    You say neoconservatives ‘took a sceptical view of efforts at planned social change’. That sounds like a good definition of common or garden conservatism.

    Neoconservatives thought ‘people needed a moral framework that gave their lives meaning and that justified the distribution of rewards within society’. Doesn’t traditional conservatism recognise this, and urge people to accept that the established order has a logic to it, and that they should accept their place in life?

    You devote considerable space to outlining Saunders’ ‘objection to free market libertarianism’, and showing how it resembles Kristol’s, but the question remains how this differs from an everyday conservative critique.

    ‘The dominant tendency in American conservatism was ‘fusionism”. Fine, but neosconservatism sounds like something similar – an attempt to reconcile market outcomes with older notions of justice. Given that success in the market depends on (1) endowments of wealth and talent, (2) ruthlessness, (3) luck, and (4) hard work and sacrifice, the key to bourgeois conservatism, whether Victorian or neo, is to stress (4) and downplay the others.

    Your only other clue is that neoconservatives like Kristol and Bell were more interested in culture than in economics or sociology, but this doesn’t tell us much.

    If the main difference is just that neoconservatives don’t care about God, drugs, or sexual morality, that doesn’t seem very important in the context of discussions of the welfare state, which is what you seem interested in at the end of the day.

    Alternatively, you hint sometimes at the idea that neoconservatives are basically Machiavellian (or is Straussian the word these days?), and want to forge a suitable secular ideology that will keep the masses content with a system they might otherwise question against their better interests; whereas older conservatives actually believe their ideology. But in that case, I’m sure Peter Saunders isn’t a neoconservative, since he seems to fervently believe the values he espouses.

  13. Don Arthur says:

    James – Good questions. This all started with me getting frustrated at the way Australian academics were using the term neoconservative when they were talking about the welfare state.

    My first thought was that they were just being sloppy — they liked the sound of the label because:

    1. It allowed them to define ‘conservatism’ as a reluctance to change and to argue that ‘real’ conservatives wouldn’t try to do radical things like dismantling the IR system.
    2. The neo in neoconservative resonates with the neo in neoliberal making it sound as if there’s some hidden connection between invading Iraq, torturing people, deregulating the labour market and attacking the welfare state.

    It seemed to me that most Australian academics had little understanding of where the label came from or how people on the right saw themselves and their beliefs.

    Trying to sort right wingers into neat categories based on necessesary and sufficient conditions is a hopeless quest. Setting up a series of ideal types isn’t much better. The best I can do is trace out the family resemblances.

    So every neoconservative is like some other neoconservative. But there is nothing that all neoconservatives have in common. George Lakoff would probably call it a radial category. Other people might call it a vague and useless category. It’s up to you.

    When it comes to Irving Kristol, I think there is something Machiavellian about his political ideas. It’s not that he wants to lie to people so that they can be exploited more effectively by his wicked corporate benefactors — that assumes that he still believes that socialism is a viable alternative. What he does want to do is make sure reckless intellectuals don’t erode the values and mythos that he think keeps society functioning. This involves protecting people from truths that might demoralise them.

    Protecting people from truths and giving them saluatory myths to live by is theme that comes up again and again in discussions about neoconservatism.

    And since you mentioned Strauss … in Australia it seems to be left wing sociologists who are fixated on Strauss and Carl Schmidt. I find that a little disturbing.

  14. “The conviction that the state ought to embody a particular moral tradition is a conservative idea rather than a liberal one.”

    The idea of the limited state is as much a moral tradition as any conservative conception of the state. The philosophical difference is that conservatives think that the state should use its power to create a society that adheres to certain moral traditions, while liberals do not.

    But as the 1990s debate about ‘liberal neutrality’ showed, I think, even this distinction is hard to maintain; that in practice we are dealing with differences of degree rather than kind.

    Take the recent debate about conditional welfare payments, with Jason the liberal opposing, and Saunders the ‘conservative’ supporting. Whether we like it or not, ‘passive’ welfare does create incentives to not work and to have children without live-in fathers. Therefore the welfare system is not neutral, and I think there is a defensible conservative case that steps should be taken to reduce outcomes that are generally seen to be undesirable.

  15. I am with the other posters who think of neoconservatism as primarily a foreign policy outlook. During the decade I lived in the US, I can’t recall hearing any significant public discussion of neocon domestic policy views. Maybe that reflects the failure of the neocons to get traction other than in the foreign policy area, or just my ignorance.

    Even the attention that the neocons have got recently in foreign policy is, IMHO, to a large extent an accident of history. Bush I was backed by one of the most firmly realist foreign policy teams in American history – Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker and Colin Powell, among others. Realism, of course, disdains foreign policy adventures while appreciating the need for the occasional display of overwhelming force in pursuit of the national interest. 9/11 happened, and Bush II, for whatever reason, decided to split with his father on foreign policy – and he happened to have the neocons on hand to give him a philosophical rationale for the military adventures he wished to undertake. Under slightly different circumstances, I don’t think there would even have been much attention given to neocon foreign policy views.

    Further, given how competitive the market for ideas on social policy is, I am not sure how neocon domestic thought would distinguish itself from libertarianism, certain varieties of laissez faire liberalism and anti-communist social democracy, generic social conservatism of various stripes and the various combinations and hybrids of the foregoing.

    I have to admit though that I haven’t been sufficiently intrigued by the great neocon thinkers to actually bother exploring their thought deeply. I find the younger Kristol to be smug, glib and a facile debater, and I don’t know much about Strauss other than what I have read about him on Wikipedia – and that I found inscrutable.

    So maybe the neocons do have social policy ideas that could be applied to Australia, but I would pragmatically argue that there isn’t much point, from an analytical point of view, in trying to shoe-horn Australian writers on social policy into the neocon label.

    James Wheeldon

  16. Geoff R says:

    Neo-conservatives have a more explicitly theorised evolutionary-functionalist justification for ‘conservative’ social norms; compare Scruton to Saunders for example. They appeal to social research with the same muddled selective enthusiasm as the left-wing populist anti-globalisation pack. They have more faith in the power of the state to enforce social norms or even to recreate them. They are perhaps ‘radical conservatives’, although they are a much milder representation of this position than fascists or Islamic fundamentalists, Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book may be an example.

  17. Fred Argy says:

    Don I agree with the others that it is a very stimulating post. But we need to relate theory and philosophy to the real political debate going on in Australia. Let me have a go.

    For this purpose let me ignore the issue of foreign policy intervention and distinguish between three sets of home-grown moral values:
    – social justice values

  18. Don Arthur says:

    Fred – The ideas in your comment would make a great Troppo post. It seems a shame to hide at the bottom of this thread.

    I think you’re right that Saunders does deny that there is unequal opportunity in Australia. And in some of his best known British work he denies that there’s a serious problem in Britain as well (see his attacks on John Goldthorpe’s research).

    When he says that ‘we need to make meritocracy work’ what he seems to mean is that researchers like you should stop pointing out how little equality of opportunity there is in places like the US and UK.

  19. Ken Parish says:


    I tend to agree with Fred as well. Saunders is only a “neocon” even in the limited sense you define if we assume that he really doesn’t believe that market economies are meritocracies but wants to prevent the proles from finding out.

    However, even if Saunders IS a neocon in that sense, I don’t see any real sign of the Straussian neocon amoral panic, that the masses might desert capitalism if they discover that it doesn’t reliably reward merit, taking hold generally among Australian conservatives. I suppose some aspects of the History Wars might be attributed to some such fears, and similarly with current Howard government campaigns about the teaching of English literature in our schools and the imagined malevolent influence of critical theory.

    But that’s about the extent of it as far as I can see. Neocon thinking really hasn’t taken root in Australia to any significant extent, either in academia or among the conservative political classes. Maybe that’s in part because things actually aren’t all that bad or unfair in Australia, despite 10 years of the Howard government. Income inequality is still significantly better in Australia than the US and hasn’t worsened since the Howard government came to power (at least according to ABS, although NATSEM puts a slightly different interpretation on the figures), and we also have significantly better social mobility (see this paper by Andrew Leigh). We certainly don’t have a huge underclass of working poor like the US, nor are we likely to acquire one in the near future, especially if Howard continues to water down WorkChoices in the face of

  20. Don Arthur says:

    Ken – That’s a huge comment just packed with interesting ideas. I think you’re in withdrawal. Will you please start posting again?

    I don’t know if neoconservatives like Kristol were ever worried about a “working class revolt against capitalism.” In an essay about equality Kristol wrote that bourgeois society “is not nearly so fragile as its enemies think or its friends fear.”

    What really worried Kristol was idealistic new leftists. He thought that people yearned for something more than a peaceful and prosperous bourgeois society could deliver. Affluence might make people materialially comfortable but it would not make the best of them spiritually relaxed (Clive Hamilton is probably the closest thing we have to the people Kristol was talking about).

    There’s an interesting interview with Daniel Bell in a recent volume of Thesis Eleven (Peter Beilharz spoke with him in 2004). Bell talks about the way people turn to religion because they “need something beyond the mundane.” Like Saunders he draws on Durkheim’s work.

  21. Peter Saunders says:

    I take exception to the notion being pedalled here that I cynically believe that meritocracy is a sham and that the masses have nevertheless to be sold a big meritocratic lie in order to keep them happy. Anybody familiar with my work will see that
    (a) I believe that meritocratic principles are morally attractive and are sociologically crucial in the modern age in legitimating any social order (I have cited both UK and Australian opinion data confirming that large majorities of people overwhelmingly endorse merit-based inequalities when they are not willing to endorse end state egalitarian redistribution or market-generated inequalities which do not reflect ability or hard work);
    (b) I think the importance of ensuring that competition is meritocratic is overlooked in the Hayekian liberal tradition. Major blockages to talented lower class people (or, indeed, major bulwarks defending lazy and stupid upper class people) are very hard to defend and are a legitimate target for government policies (which is why 19th century liberals were right to support laws requiring children to be educated);
    (c) I have done empirical research (for this is an empirical, not a philosophical, claim) to show that, by and large, modern western capitalist societies do not fall far short of any reasonable meritocratic standard. I do not claim we live in a perfect meritocracy. And of course I accept that some groups, defined by ascribed status such as race or sometimes gender, do not always compete on equal terms with others, although public policies have in recent decades tried to address this. My empirical claim, however, is that selection into social classes is today driven much more by talent and hard work than by social advantages or disadvantages of background, and in my book, Unequal but Fair (as well as in various papers in the sociology journals) I set out the evidence for this claim (in a UK sample of 17,000, half of all the explained variance in occupational outcomes could be explained by IQ alone, and IQ plus hard work variables explained about 5 times more variance than all the social background variables put together).
    When Don, Fred and other contributors to this thread say or imply that I am seeking to pull the wool over the eyes of the working class by telling them the system is fair when it isn’t, this is doing me an injustice and it rests on a misreading of everything I have written on this topic. Look at the end of my “Unequal But Fair”

  22. James Farrell says:

    Did you in fact read what Fred said, Peter? He obviously doesn’t agree with your empirical claims, but when it comes to stating your basic position, he was spot on.

  23. Don Arthur says:

    Peter – I’m not sure that re-reading your books and articles is going to help me understand your position. You say that:

    (a) you believe in meritocracy as an ethical ideal;
    (b) you think that it is legitimate for governments to take action to make society more meritocratic;
    (c ) you have empirical evidence that western capitalist societies are reasonably meritocratic.

    I strongly agree with your argument that children’s beliefs about the causes of success and failure have a powerful influence on outcomes. Children who falsely attribute failure to external causes outside of their control can become fatalistic and fall short of their potential.

    But equally, if children attribute their lack of success to an innate lack of ability you’ll get the same result. In her research, psychologist Carol Dweck has found that many children believe that ability is fixed while others believe that it can be increased through effort and persistence. The first group display a ‘helplessness pattern’ while the second display a ‘mastery pattern’.

    The helplessness group are easily discouraged. When they come across something they can’t do they "denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for the failures." As a result, they tend to avoid difficult tasks. In contrast, the mastery group treat difficult tasks as a challenge. They try harder, they look for new strategies, and they keep trying. This group enjoy challenges and seek them out. It’s not hard to guess which group is most likely to reach its full potential.

    You condemn ‘leftist propagandists’ because they convince working class kids to give up before they’ve even had a go. But claiming that countries like Australia are largely meritocratic can have the same effect. When children from economically disadvantaged families see children from better off families outperforming them, should they assume that this is because the better off children are smarter? If the system was genuinely meritocratic and both sets of children were equally motivated then this would be a logical conclusion.

    As I think you’ve acknowledged, children from better off families are able to outperform equally intelligent children from disadvantaged families. And this effect persists into the labour market.

    It seems to me that simplistic claims about Australia being a meritocratic society are likely to discourage social mobility for children from disadvantaged backgrounds in a similar way to ‘leftist propaganda’ about class barriers and racism. Parents, teachers, employers and policy makers come to believe that children from some backgrounds are born with lower levels of ability or have culturally inherited traits that make them lazier and less motivated. Kids get the message and suffer the consequences.

    All of this overlooks the powerful effects of the early childhood environment on cognitive development. When children arrive in the classroom they’re carrying more than just their genetic endowments — at the age of 5 or 6 they can already be struggling from the effects of a disadvantaged environment.

    If you really do believe both (a) and (b) then I’m puzzled why you aren’t a stronger supporter of government interventions aimed at supporting children and families during the early childhood years.

    You’ve attacked Fred Argy’s arguments but it seems to me that he’s the one who has concrete proposals for making Australia more meritocratic and for enabling all Australians to reach their full potential.

  24. Fred Argy says:

    Peter, isn’t there a logical inconsistency in your own argument?

    You refer to a UK study of occupational mobility. The evidence on income mobility is much more stark (see my AI paper) – but let us leave that aside and accept your results as you have presented them. If my arithmetic is right, they show that some 17% of occupational variance CANNOT be explained either by IQ or hard work. That’s a hell of a lot of people!

    How then can you go on to conclude that “modern capitalist societies do not fall far short of any reasonable meritocratic standard”

  25. Jason Soon says:

    Strictly speaking the whole idea of meritocracy is without merit – philosophically meaningless and is unnecessary for liberalism

    So in a sense it is myth-making, whether sincerely espoused or not. I certainly agree that Peter is fully sincere in what he says.

  26. Don Arthur says:

    Peter – Another problem I have in interpreting your work is the unacknowledged tension between two concepts of merit.

    On the one had you argue that society needs a way of legitimating inequality and suggests that reward for merit is the principle with the greatest level of public support. This requires a MORAL definition of merit.

    On the other hand in your empirical research you use a definition of merit that strips it of morally relevant features. On your definition, hard working and intelligent tobacco lobbyists — or even illegal drug dealers — have a greater claim to merit than nurses or firefighters. I can’t see how a principle that produces results like that can legitimate inequality.

    For me this tension seems so obvious that I find it hard to accept I’m arguing with someone who is being open and honest about their position and their reasons for holding it. I really do wonder whether you’re marketing an justification you think will sell but don’t find entirely convincing yourself.

  27. Fred Argy says:

    Jason, I admire libertarians for their internal consistency (something which cannot always be said of social democrats or social conservatives). But I wonder how consistent you are when you say that “meritocracy is unnecessary for liberalism”

  28. Jason Soon says:

    Fred, what I meant by that was that meritocracy is unnecessary for justifying liberalism. My link only discusses the philosophical meaningfulness of a concept like meritocracy when so much of the outcomes we achieve are a matter of either genetic or environmental determinism plus some blind luck.

    In that sense I don’t actually have a problem with interventions that would compellingly pass a cost-benefit analysis test (like early childhood intervention).

    My point was merely that the presumption against intervention and for property rights shouldn’t and needn’t rest on some idea of moral desert as there were other more compelling reasons for such presumptions (systemic government failures being one you identified) – this is a proposition that Hayek would have wholeheartedly agreed with but not Kristol. As Don has identified spot on in his post, this is the difference between Hayekian liberals and neoconservatives and what makes neoconservatives what they are – the search for some link between moral desert and the outcomes of capitalism.

  29. Peter Saunders says:

    I knew I’d regret responding! Getting drawn into these blogsite debates is like fighting the Hydra – slice off one head and ten more appear demanding your immediate attention.
    Don (23): Your argument that meritocracy is demotivating for low ability children ignores the importance of personal effort (I follow Michael Young in defining merit as ability plus effort). Hard work pays off at all ability levels so there is no reason why low ability children should be demotivated. I have no natural talent for golf but I persist in practicing because I know it raises my scores from awful to acceptable. (There are echoes here, incidentally, of Charles Murray’s argument in “In Pursuit” that happiness derives from doing the best you can in any task).
    You are right to note: “As I think you’ve acknowledged, children from better off families are able to outperform equally intelligent children from disadvantaged families.” I do not claim we live in a perfect meritocracy. But (a) the class effect is small (see below) and (b) it operates mainly in assisting dull middle class children to avoid failure rather than in blocking hard working and bright lowere class children from succeeding. I believe this is why Blair dropped his meritocracy campaign early after being elected, for it is one thing to push for policies like early intervention to help disadvantaged kids succeed, but quite another to push for, say, abolition of private schools to prevent dull middle class children from succeeding more than they ‘should.’
    Fred (24): I accept income mobility data (here and in UK) tend to generate lower estimates than occupational mobility data, but I think occupational mobility is a better test of the openness of a society than income mobility, if only because many middle class jobs are not particularly well paid but offer other attractions that aspirants seek. Be that as it may, my UK occupational data do NOT suggest that class background accounts for anything like the proportion of variance you suggest. Basically, my analysis of the NCDS data showed that, of all variance explained in occupational outcomes, half was due to academic ability alone, with ‘personal effort’ (hard work plus aspirations) and qualifications achieved each contributing about another 15-18%. Parental interest in the child’s education added another 8%, and parental aspirations for the child about 3%. The remaining 8% or so was explained by the socio-economic background the person was born into. This is why I conclude that Britain is not a million miles away from being a meritocracy.
    Don (26) reiterates: “I find it hard to accept I’m arguing with someone who is being open and honest about their position.” I find this slur offensive. Comparisons of drug dealers and fire fighters are irrelevant to the work I’ve been doing, for I have not been engaged in a philosophical debate about the inherent worth of different kinds of human labour. My concerns have been with empirical evidence about how people end up in different occupational statuses. I have not been interested in university common room arguments about whether one occupation should be more or less highly regarded or rewarded than another.
    I have had 2 main aims in my work on meritocracy. First, faced with data about correlations between parents’ and children’s occupational statuses, sociologists have for years concluded the evidence shows that class origins are the main factor determining class destinations. I have shown this is not true and that ability and effort can explain these correlations much better. Secondly, I have gone on to demonstrate that most people think it is illegitimate if people succeed because of their parental advantages, but that it is perfectly legitimate if they succeed through their own talents and efforts. I have then linked the first and second points to conclude that modern capitalism is both meritocratic (to a large degree) and that it delivers what most people say is a legitimate system of occupational recruitment.

  30. Ken Parish says:

    I’m really sorry Peter Saunders is finding the discussion unproductive. I hope he continues participating in this and other discussions at Troppo. I certainly agree that Don Arthur’s doubting of Peter’s sincerity was, to put it diplomatically, uncharacteristically uncivil of him, not to mention unfair.

    One thing it’s easy to forget during these discussions (I know, because I often forget myself, and get discouraged as a result) is that for every closed-minded commenter who contributes just to score a petty debating point, there are 20 or 30 readers who don’t respond but are absorbing both sides of the argument with appreciation and interest. I’m certainly in that category in this discussion (which should be apparent to Peter from comment 19 above).

    Ronald Dworkin came up with a thought experiment (in Taking Rights Seriously) designed in part to maximise societal equality of opportunity while also rewarding merit, initiative and hard work. Everyone gets to bid at a life auction, with an equal amount of money, for the bundle of resources that most nearly allows them to fulfil their life aspirations/ambitions. However, they don’t know what talents and abilities they possess to enable them to realise those ambitions (it’s a bit like John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance in that respect). To deal with this non-material/innate inequality of opportunity they also get to use part of their bidding funds to purchase insurance against the possibility that they’ve been dealt a bad hand in the poker game of life (either genetically or in terms of the parenting abilities and attitudes of their mum and dad). The premiums are used to compensate them for the disadvantages that aren’t their fault (both genetic and nurturing).

    It’s a nice idea. But how do you separate and measure factors deserving of compensation from those worthy of blame for which one should suffer the consequences of one’s choices? It’s impossible, I suggest, and even if it wasn’t you would end up with a society of a type that would be impossibly intrusive to live in.

    There is certainly more that we in Australia could and should do to enhance equality of opportunity. Fred Argy’s proposals on early childhood interventions are the most obvious examples of things we should be doing. However, in general I’m also persuaded to a fair extent by Peter Saunders’ arguments that places like Australia (and probably the UK) don’t stack up too badly overall in meritocratic terms. Perfect meritocracy is impossible to achieve, in part because it’s impossible to define and in part because you will inevitably reach a point of diminishing and even negative returns.

    For example, Noel Pearson argues that current schemes for free school breakfasts, lunches etc for Aboriginal kids on Cape York, while boosting school attendances and childhood nutrition in the short term, run the risk of actually making things worse in the long term because they exacerbate parental opting out of responsibility and its wholesale transfer to the State, which is neither desirable nor viable in the long term. I think he has a point, just as I think Peter Saunders has.

  31. I agree with Ken. The two threads that Peter Saunders has participated in have been outstanding. (As Andrew Leigh commented on the first one). I sympathise with Peter’s concern for hydras. We’ve all had our fair share of them. But it really is a first class discussion from which, as Ken said, we are all learning. I think this is an extremely productive way to narrow differences or refine what they are.

  32. Don Arthur says:

    I apologise for letting my frustration get the better of me. Even though I strongly disagree with his arguments I’ve appreciated Peter’s participation in the discussion. And I’m flattered that he thinks people take my ideas seriously enough that he needs to respond to them.

    The reason I’m getting frustrated is that there’s a part of Peter’s argument that just doesn’t make sense to me. Even after his responses here I still don’t know how to make sense of the argument. It could be that the problem is the way I’m interpreting Saunders’ reasoning. Let me set out the argument as I understand it.

    1. Hayek’s critique of meritocracy. In his 1999 Bert Kelly Lecture Peter says that he is rejecting Hayek’s arguments against meritocracy. So what did Hayek say?

    Most people will object not to the bare fact of inequality but to the fact that the differences in reward do not correspond to any recognizable differences in the merits of those who receive them. The answer commonly given to this is that a free society on the whole achieves this kind of justice. This, however, is an indefensible contention if by justice is meant proportionality of reward to moral merit. Any attempt to found the case for freedom on this argument is very damaging to it, since it concedes that material rewards ought to be made to correspond to recognizable merit and then opposes the conclusion that most people will draw from this by an assertion which is untrue. The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practical that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired (p 94).

    Hayek argues that markets should embody procedural justice rather than distributive justice. In other words people need to be satisfied with a fair process rather than an outcome which conforms to some pattern (eg equal shares, distribution according to need, reward for merit).

    It’s important to get two things clear:–

    (i) When Hayek used the word ‘merit’ he meant moral deservingness.
    (ii) Hayek rejected the idea that the distribution of incomes in a free market society would conform to any standard of merit.

    2. Saunders’ critique of Hayek. Peter responds to Hayek by saying:

    While he is to be admired for his honesty, Hayek was an economist and a legal philosopher, not a sociologist. A sociologist would heartily disagree with Hayek’s conclusions. As Durkheim said 100 years ago, in order for any society to work and function with stability, it has to have a clear sense of how it justifies its arrangements to those who live in it. Hayek’s ‘like it or lump it’ stance is unproductive because it will never provide legitimation and justification for a free capitalist society. It does matter why people end up where they do and with the resources they end up with. The reasons are important, and the questions must be answered. Neither the egalitarian nor the liberal position can function as an alternative to meritocracy because ultimately they both offend a sense of what is appropriate and fair…
    …the liberal position is offensive when it says I don’t care why you’ve got your money, I don’t care whether you deserved it, and I’m not going to make an effort to rectify what, as Hayek himself says, appears to be a gross injustice. The fact that really hard working, honest people don’t get rewarded, and that this situation is not worth rectifying is offensive to popular sentiment.

    The rebuttal of Hayek’s argument rests on three claims:–

    (i) The public will not be satisfied with differences in income just because they are the result of fair process — people will only accept these differences if the outcomes conform to some standard of fairness (ie some principle of distributive justice).
    (ii) The only standard (distributive justice principle) which can claim majority support is meritocracy — reward for ability + effort.
    (iii) Societies like Australia’s and Britain’s are reasonably meritocratic in this sense — far more meritocratic than many sociologists claim.

    If Peter’s claim at (ii) was correct then this would logically imply that a majority of people would accept that it was morally justified for a prostitute or drug dealer to earn more than a nurse or teacher provided they had more talent and worked harder. I think that is demonstrably false. I’m pretty sure that if you explicitly asked this question in a survey a majority of people would not agree.

    Peter’s definition of merit doesn’t take into account whether the person’s activities harm others or even whether their business is legal. Yet, at the same time, Peter argues that Hayek’s position is offensive because it says "I don’t care why you’ve got your money, I don’t care whether you deserved it".

    If Peter’s claim at (i) was correct then his thin definition of merit as reward according to ability + effort is obviously inadequate. On its own, it cannot provide the kind of moral justification for market incomes that he says the public demand.

    3. Am I confused? It’s possible that I’ve misinterpreted Peter’s argument. For example:

    (i) He has misread Hayek’s argument. It may be that Peter misunderstood what Hayek meant by ‘merit’. Rather than referring to moral merit he thought that Hayek meant ability + effort.
    (ii) He doesn’t actually disagree with Hayek at all. It may be the Peter regards the fact that income distributions tend to track ability + effort as evidence that the system is procedurally fair.
    (iii) He really does think that most of the public would accept that talented hardworking drug dealers are more deserving that less talented and hardworking nurses and teachers.
    (iv) … I’m out of ideas. What interpretation have I missed?

  33. Perhaps “neo-conservative” had to be invented because there was no previous example of conservative ideology that wasn’t either (a) libertarian; or (b) focussed on the enemy.

    Personally, I don’t consider “conservativism” a political philosophy. More a preference for yesterday and a preference for slow change. Socialists always want public healthcare. Libertarians always want private health care. Conservatives want whatever they had yesterday.

    But with some on the left jumping over to the conservative side and then deciding to try and justify their beliefs, they created a new thinking-man’s conservative political philosophy. It is perhaps a natural outcome from the failing marriage of classical liberals and conservatives.

    I would describe Saunders as a moderate libertarian or classical liberal. He gets a few things wrong (e.g. child subsidies) but he’s mostly on my side. :) I certainly wouldn’t class him as conservative (as described above), and I don’t think neoconservative fits either. I imagine he has considerable sympathy with a Hayek world.

  34. Ken Parish says:


    It may be that Saunders’ rebuttal of Hayek requires an addtional qualification, namely that the income-earning activity be lawful. But perhaps he regards that point as so obvious as not to require explicit statement. As for any additional qualification that retention of public confidence in the market economy requires some mechanism in addition to market forces to determine the relative moral worthiness of various lawful occupations and ascribe differential wage levels to them in accordance with that moral judgment (e.g. as between nurses, teachers and sex workers), I don’t see anything in Saunders’ argument that requires any such qualification. Maybe Saunders overstates the starkness of the distinction between his position and that of Hayek. It may well be that most people if asked would (as Don suggests) say that good teachers or nurses should earn more than sex workers (although I’m not sure of that), but I seriously doubt that the fact that this isn’t the case in the real world actually undermines public confidence in the market economy. I don’t think very many people lose sleep over the fact that used car dealers earn more than nurses either. To the extent that Saunders doesn’t explicitly qualify his argument to acknowledge that Hayek was correct at least to that extent, you’re probably correct.

  35. Don – I think you are trying to read too much into this. I don’t think Pete is saying that everything needs to be decided according to merit, just that typically if you do the right thing (which could be working hard, working in a worthy occupation, or other broadly meritorious things) you will be recognised for that, whether financially or otherwise. This is not an argument about individual cases, it is about how the mass of people perceive their society and their own place in it. That some people, even lots of people, get things they don’t deserve according to merit won’t matter much if most people feel that merit is still rewarded.

  36. Don Arthur says:

    Ken – I agree with you that there aren’t many people losing sleep over the fact that used car dealers earn more than nurses.

    And I’m pretty sure there aren’t many people losing sleep over the fact that some used car dealers are earning more than left wing sociologists — even when the sociologists have higher IQs and work harder (I can’t say it worries me).

    Personally I’d side with Hayek over Saunders on this issue. We need markets but markets don’t need people to believe that they distribute rewards according to some criteria of moral merit. We should be happy with procedural fairness alone.

    Once we’ve recognised that markets aren’t fair in a distributive sense then we can think clearly about what governments ought to do outside of the market (and that’s where I disagree with Hayek).

    As I’ve argued elsewhere, different principles can apply within different institutions. For example, access to higher education can be on academic merit (not moral merit), access to healthcare can be on need, lotteries on chance and markets on whatever outcomes emerge from rule governed exchange.

    I doubt that it’s possible to get a majority of people to agree to a distributive justice principle which applies to the distribution of all goods and burdens within society.

  37. Brent says:

    This comment addresses meritocracy. A subsequent one covers philosophical/political classifications. Jason is right to say that meritocracy is without philosophical merit. So if most people endorse meritocracy we should be making the case against it, rather than merely accepting their opinion as a sound basis for policymaking.

    First, people have no control over their natural ability and hence do not deserve to be rewarded for this. In the same way that people aren’t responsible for the social class into which they are born, people aren’t responsible for their genetic inheritance. Second, rewarding people for (hard) work can’t be intrinsically justified unless people have freewill and the case has to be made that people do have freewill. We can’t simply assume this. Third, people can’t do anything without access to natural resources, most obviously breathable air, so you need a credible theory of how natural resources should be distributed before you can contemplate developing a potential theory of individual deservingness.

    Fourth, I don’t think you can say that (hard) work is intrinsically virtuous. You can argue for rewarding some work to some extent on grounds of social utility, but that’s a separate issue. If you ignore social consequences, is someone who chooses to work more deserving than someone who doesn’t? If so, why so? What justifies this moral judgement? If we make it, what is there to prevent us making various other illiberal judgements and basing rewards on these judgements? Perhaps those who prefer Proust to porn should be rewarded

  38. Brent says:

    On political classifications, we can usefully distinguish between what different people regard as inherently desirable and how they think that desirable thing should be distributed (assuming distributional issues are relevant to the thing deemed inherently desirable). A philosophical liberal regards freedom as inherently desirable. A philosophical welfarist regards welfare (or wellbeing) as inherently desirable. A philosophical theist might regard complying with God’s will as inherently desirable. Some people would accept some trade-off between freedom and welfare (and perhaps other values) rather than being freedom or welfare purists. What distinguishes the (sensible) Left from the (sensible) Right is the higher priority the former group gives to those with relatively little of the desirable thing obtaining more of that thing. The greater the priority to the less advantaged, the more Left the position. So, working with the purist poles, we can have Left liberals, Right liberals, Left welfarists and Right welfarists. A Right welfarist might prefer 55 units of wellbeing for A and 45 units of wellbeing for B, whereas a more Left welfarist might prefer 53 units for A and 47 units for B, or 48 units for both, to the 55/45 distribution.

    Perhaps a welfarist utilitarian, who says that advancing the wellbeing of everyone should be regarded as equally important, should be classified as a Centrist welfarist, although in terms of policy recommendations it can be argued that utilitarianism tends to favour relatively egalitarian social and economic actions that would generally be described as Leftist political measures relative to the political status quo.

    I think people who would normally be described in mainstream political debate as Leftists or Conservatives tend to give a higher priority to promoting wellbeing (versus freedom) than people who would might be described as Liberals.

    Then there’s the debate about the best means to achieve the philosophically desired ends. The general Leftist preference for substantial social democratic or democratic market socialist actions (such as strong government spending on healthcare; cash social security payments; and education, training and transport, especially for the disadvantaged) makes sense if these actions enhance overall wellbeing, perhaps with some priority being given to advancing the wellbeing of the less well off. And I think the evidence supports this judgement.

    As for government controls on social security recipients driven by strictly paternalistic considerations, liberal purists should oppose them. And welfarists should support them if and only if, enough social security recipients engage in less self-harming activities when given commands by the government than when left alone to outweigh the harm done to those penalised for breaching paternalistic social security rules and the nuisance caused to others who did not behave more prudently as a result of government interventions.

    Some people may also value individuals getting what they deserve, but for reasons given in an earlier comment I don’t think that attempting to achieve this goal is justified. People normally described as Conservatives in political debate would, I think, tend to be more attracted to this deservingness goal than Liberals or Leftists. Also, if we were to compare Conservative supporters of rewarding deservingness and Leftist supporters of rewarding deservingness you would find they have different concepts of deservingness, with Leftists conceptions tending to produce better outcomes for the less well off than Conservatives conceptions.

    For example, a Left (Useful) Effort Meritocracy, where people were rewarded for autonomous socially useful effort would be better for the less well off than a Right (Useful) Effort-Plus-Ability Meritocracy, where people were also rewarded for their natural ability. While you might be able to make some sort of argument that – subject to numerous caveats (see comment above) – market wages reward people “in line”

  39. Good answer Don.

    If it can be remedied I’m quite happy to get concerned about used car dealers earning more than nurses and teachers. But it’s a fairly intractable problem to deal with – so we live with it like I live with my odd aches and pains. All the alternatives look worse.

    It (undervaluation of teachers and nurses not my aches and pains) can be remedied a bit with political and cultural action to try to value teachers and nurses more – economically and socially. But there will remain all sorts of unproductive activities in markets and markets will provide larger rewards to activities we won’t think are all that owrthy. And markets are as good an institution as we’ve got for a lot of social and economic tasks – and we don’t have any way of curbing some of the problems we see that don’t take us into territory that we have reason to be suspicious of.

  40. Amused says:

    Markets are good for a number of tasks, but they are a tool, not an end in themselves. The problem with Saunders and the rest of them, is that they confuse, quite deliberately in my view, two quite distinct things-‘markets’ for goods or services of various kinds, which are as natural a human activity as language, but only exist with the permission of the legal authorities in any economcially meaningful sense in liberal democracies, and the ‘MARKET’, which is an abstraction which has by now come to take the place of the sacred and whose constitution and workings, are held to be so beyond any kind of democratic restraint, that a raft of illiberal, authoritarian and quite anti democratic measures continue to be enacted in order to ensure that nothing and no-one can interfere with its prerogatives and powers.

    Personally I don’t care either that used car salaesmen earn more than I do, but I do care that the ‘MARKET’, understood as a rhetorical device, is increasingly being deployed as a reason for denying purposive political and social activty, and is also being used to rip up important social and political rights that exist precisely because the ‘great unwashed’ preferrred that they didn’t enter into a ‘market’ composed of themselves and their families.

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